What Is Knowledge Management?

Successful knowledge management means everyone wins. The company runs more efficiently, and employees boost their value to the company when they share information.

“Your most precious possession is not your financial assets. Your most precious possession is the people you have working there, and what they carry around in their heads.…”—Robert Reich

It is noon in Singapore, and a company is trying to get a new product to market. The test equipment is not performing correctly, and the onsite support engineer needs help from the U.S. product division, where currently it’s midnight. What the engineer doesn’t know is that the same problem was solved two days ago in Europe.

What can the engineer do?

  • Try to solve the problem, duplicating the effort.
  • Send a message to the U.S. product division and wait eight or more hours for the United States to get the message and begin working on the problem and duplicating work done in Europe.

Do you have similar communications or duplication-of-effort problems or provide products or services worldwide that suffer from lack of consistency?

Because information is essential to our business, it is crucial to capture and reuse it, in other words, to perform knowledge management. But what is knowledge management, and how do you implement a knowledge-management initiative in your company?

Knowledge can originate from anyone, whether it’s a vice president or a worker on an assembly line. Examples include a rolodex of industry contacts; programming code, knowledge of legacy or obscure products, systems, or processes; essential relationships with clients or people within the company; industry best practices; templates for commonly used documents; and published documents or articles.

Management means that knowledge (information) is available, easily found, and reusable. The simple exchange or transfer of knowledge is not knowledge management. For example, bringing your employees together on a regular basis to share information promotes knowledge sharing, but the knowledge is not systematically captured for reuse. Plus, if your company is global, travel costs can be prohibitive, especially when economic conditions are uncertain.

The challenge for knowledge management is how to gather expertise, organize it, and make it accessible to employees so that it is easy to find, understand, and use.

Knowledge-Management Initiative

“The rate at which a society’s technology advances is determined by the relative level of its ability to process information.”—Paul Zane Pilzer

The only reason to embark on a knowledge-management initiative is because there is a business need that it will serve. Are vital documents easy to find? Can customer service be improved if knowledge is shared among employees? Is there a need to train new employees with more experienced employees? Could there be more consistency in information that is available? Could repositories of information become more user friendly? Is there often duplication of effort? Can travel expenses be reduced?

You think you have a business need—do you know that it is a need? Perform some audience analysis with potential users, for example, your employees or customers. What information do they need that they cannot find? Why can’t they find it? Does it already exist in some form? If so, are there barriers to its use? If not, why is it not being used?

How essential is this information to your business? Audience analysis sounds like a trivial step but is essential to make sure that you are providing the right knowledge to the right people.

Once you know the wants and needs of your users, prioritize them. Consider the return on investment—money, time, or perhaps a combination of the two. Prioritizing also helps if your users have more wants and needs than you can immediately implement.

Create a roadmap of these wants and needs for future improvements, and keep in mind that these can change over time. If you provide something slick that users won’t use because it does not meet their largest and most immediate needs, you will fail before you have begun.

Based on the business need, a strategy is required that describes the purpose of the initiative. Like all good strategies, it should not change based on market fluctuations, the latest enabling technologies, or the current CEO of your company. It should be a statement/strategy that is hard to argue with, describing something that everyone would want; for example, certainly every company wants excellent customer service.

Strategy is not about the technologies that actually enable the knowledge-management initiative. Your business needs and strategy should inform the enabling technologies, not vice versa. As there is a vast array of technologies to choose from that enable the many facets of knowledge management, you can be easily overwhelmed. And technologies can change, either because something better comes along or the company that provides it goes out of business. Having a strategy will allow you to stay focused on your goal—the business needs.

Avoid the temptation to implement the latest and greatest technology just for the sake of being on the cutting edge. Perhaps an existing database of information already meets the needs of the users, and a cutting-edge enabling technology only will serve to put a fancy new user interface on something that already works well. Remember that you’ll need to maintain that fancy new interface’s underlying technology.

Successful Knowledge Management

Successful knowledge-management initiatives usually are based on change management. Although change management is beyond the scope of this article, there are initial actions that corporations can take to encourage the assimilation of knowledge management into the corporate culture.

Thomas Crum said, “Change does not take time—it takes commitment.” What is your corporation’s commitment to knowledge management? To be successful, you will need support from all levels of management. This would include money and resources to implement and support enabling technologies as well as encouraging people to share their valuable knowledge and use knowledge-management tools on a daily basis.

What is the corporate commitment to keeping the information current, dynamic, relevant, and useful? Sometimes the most valuable person in your company is the one who needs to mine and supply information to the masses, perhaps the top salesperson or engineer, often referred to as a gatekeeper. Is management willing to dedicate that employee’s time to mining the most current information in his or her industry? If management is unwilling to dedicate a highly skilled person to this job, the knowledge-management initiative risks failure.

Corporate culture changes can be the harder part of a knowledge-management initiative. A company must be prepared and committed to proactively address these changes, using a combination of people, process, and technology.

People must to be willing to contribute information. Defined, easily executed processes must exist to make it easy for people to contribute so that it becomes part of their daily work habits. Technology must be used judiciously to ensure a successful implementation of the solution and seamless access to information.

The hardest part of the people, process, and technology equation may be people. The change in making employees realize that they become more valuable to a company is when they share information.

Also, knowledge-management initiatives often require people to change the way they perform their daily work. Although overcoming these cultural challenges is specific to your corporate situation, visible encouragement from top management down is a good place to start. Knowledge sharing and new processes should be part of an employee’s job description and an expected part of daily work.


If the engineer in Europe had saved the solution in a database, then the engineer in Singapore could have fixed the test equipment within minutes, instead of hours or days. But knowledge management is an ongoing investment in the future of a company. It is not a one-time project, but instead needs committed resources to support it as it grows.

For a successful knowledge-management program:

  1. Perform a needs and audience analysis.
  2. Obtain a commitment from the business and technology key players.
  3. Define a strategy.
  4. Prioritize requirements and create a roadmap of future features and functionality.
  5. Implement the knowledge management solution, keeping in mind that your success may hinge on the acceptance of corporate cultural changes.
  6. Maintain the solution and continually search for feedback through user surveys.
  7. Use the feedback to continually improve the solution.

About the Author

Karen Golden Russell formerly worked at Teradyne where she was involved in marketing eSupport, the company’s suite of customer-support products based on knowledge-management best practices. She has more than 10 years of information-technology and software-development experience. e-mail: [email protected]

For More Information

Teradyne eKnowledge

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Published by EE-Evaluation Engineering
All contents © 2002 Nelson Publishing Inc.
No reprint, distribution, or reuse in any medium is permitted
without the express written consent of the publisher.

November 2002

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